It wasn't until he was 30 that Koité decided to form a band, Bamada, and they toured extensively throughout Mali, before heading to the Perpignan Voxpole Festival in France in 1991, where they took first prize. That brought them the chance to record two songs, one of which, "Cigarette A Bana" ("The Cigarette Is Finished"), became a hit across West Africa, to the extent that children would sing its chorus in the streets. That led to another single, "Nanale" ("The Swallow"), and the Discovery of 1993: Media-Adami Award by Radio France International. In the wake of that, came Koité's first album, Muso Ko, which topped the European World Music charts (released in the U.S. 1999 on Alula Records). While many Malian musicians interpreted the tradition, artists who used it as a springboard for their own writing were -- and still are -- rare. But Koité's studies had grounded him in regional styles and rhythms, while his guitar work was strong and often subtle, enough to take in the music and spit it out as something new and fresh. As he said, "My way to play traditional music is to adapt the sounds of the traditional instruments from Mali through my acoustic guitar."
By the time Ma Ya appeared -- it became his first American release, early in 1999 -- Koité had matured, both as a writer and a player. Socially conscious, his work had the natural infectiousness of good pop music, with the solid rhythmic and melodic base of Mali. The album, he stated was meant to be "a musical voyage through Mali. I give myself the freedom to move from one rhythm to another." Like Koité, Bamada had also come a long way, offering imaginative, sympathetic backing to his material and voice, although there was no doubt who was the star of the show. In summer 2001, he released his third disc, Bora. ~ Chris Nickson, Rovi